The following column appeared originally on DailyKos on May 30, 2016, and is reprinted here in its entirety.
My infant son peed while I was in the middle of changing him the other night, causing me to think about inequality. I got the old diaper off, got the new one in place, started to fasten it … and realized he was peeing. So I sighed, and replaced the now-dirty second diaper, thinking “really, you couldn’t do this two minutes ago into the old dirty diaper?” I was unhappy with the environmental impact and the added minutes of 2 AM sleep I was losing to this process, but one thing I wasn’t thinking about was how to afford an extra diaper. Which is why inequality came to mind—because not thinking about that cost is a luxury many Americans don’t have.
Nearly 30 percent of women have experienced a time when they couldn’t afford diapers for their children. That burden falls far heavier on the poor than on those who are better off. The people in the lowest quintile of income, making an average of just over $11,000 a year, spends nearly 14 percent of its income on diapers. The next quintile, those who make about $29,000 a year, still spend 5 percent of its income on them. Yet the richest only has to expend 1 percent of its income.
One study found that 30 percent of women can’t always afford to change their children’s diapers as often as they’d like. There are no good answers to that dilemma.
Mothers would take the diapers off, dump out the poop, and put the diapers back on. They would air-dry the diapers. They’d let their kids sit in wet diapers for longer than they should—a practice that can lead to UTIs and other infections. Other moms have reported potty training infants who are less than a year old—at least six months earlier than is recommended—in order to save money.
Because, of course, food stamps and WIC don’t cover diapers, and a Democratic bill to allow that hasn’t gone anywhere, because congressional Republicans. And, as President Obama recently noted, this doesn’t just hurt the babies:
Access to clean diapers isn’t just important for a child’s health and safety. Research has shown that mothers who are unable to afford diapers for their babies are more likely to suffer from maternal depression and mental health issues.
Samantha Bee recently delved into the issue, and the arguments against poor babies getting clean diapers:
One important point Bee raises is echoed by The Diaper Bank:
The vast majority of licensed day care centers do not accept cloth diapers, and require parents and caregivers to provide a steady supply of disposable diapers.
Most people living in poverty do not have affordable access to washing facilities. Furthermore, most coin-operated laundromats do not allow customers to wash cloth diapers for health and sanitary reasons.
So your “get a job” talking point and your “use cloth diapers” talking point won’t go anywhere. You might also want to give some serious thought to your “I can get a year’s worth of diapers for a lot less than $900 by going to Costco/doing a ‘subscribe and save’ at Amazon” talking point, because, as the National Diaper Bank Network points out:
Without transportation, buying diapers at a convenience store rather than a large “big box” store can significantly increase the monthly cost of diapers.
(And without a credit card and a steady supply of money, you can’t subscribe and save at Amazon.)
I’d love it if my kid would quit soiling diapers before I’ve even finished putting them on him, but I’d love it even more if 30 percent of American women didn’t have to decide how exactly to keep their kids in dirty diapers for longer than is healthy. Diaper banks, which distribute diapers to families that need them, are a wonderful and important thing in the system we currently have. But the system needs changing so that diaper banks aren’t needed.
Laura Clawson is the Labor editor at Daily Kos Labor, and a contributing editor at Daily Kos.